Thursday, October 7, 2010

Whitman and Dickinson

The final emergence of a truly indigenous English-language poetry in the United States was the work of two poets, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) and Emily Dickinson  (1830–1886). On the surface, these two poets could not have been less alike. Whitman's long lines, derived from the metric of the King James Version of the Bible, and his democratic inclusiveness stand in stark contrast with Dickinson's concentrated phrases and short lines and stanzas, derived from Protestant hymnals.

What links them is their common connection to Emerson (a passage from whom Whitman printed on the second edition of Leaves of Grass), and the daring originality of their visions. These two poets can be said to represent the birth of two major American poetic idioms—the free metric and direct emotional expression of Whitman, and the gnomic obscurity and irony of Dickinson—both of which would profoundly stamp the American poetry of the 20th century.
The development of these idioms, as well as more conservative reactions against them, can be traced through the works of poets such as Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935), Stephen Crane (1871–1900), Robert Frost (1874–1963) and Carl Sandburg (1878–1967). Frost, in particular, is a commanding figure, who aligned strict poetic meter, particularly blank verse and terser lyrical forms, with a "vurry Amur'k'n" (as Pound put it) idiom. He successfully revitalized a rural tradition with many English antecedents from his beloved Golden Treasury and produced an oeuvre of major importance, rivaling or even excelling in achievement that of the key modernists and making him, within the full sweep of more traditional modern English-language verse, a peer of Hardy and Yeats. But from Whitman and Dickson the outlines of a distinctively new organic poetic tradition, less indebted to English formalism than Frost's work, were clear to see, and they would come to full fruition in the teens and twenties.

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